Water is essential not only for sustaining both life and culture. It is a key part of agriculture, fishing, and of course, food preparation. It can also be a source of joy – many communities’ favorite water memories are swimming or fishing, spending time by the beach or lake – or a source of pain – like Black families remembering their ancestors who were trafficked across the middle passage, or who escaped slavery in harrowing conditions through the Underground Railroad.

And yet today, safe water is not a guarantee in any community around the world, and that can have huge implications on health and development. In the USA, there are communities affected by poor infrastructure that leeches the neurotoxin Lead into the household water supply, or whose water supplies have been contaminated. More often than not, those most affected are communities of color, who have been systematically left out of regulations, management, and infrastructure improvements.

In this panel, Mami Hara (CEO, US Water Alliance), Cherita Harrell (Associate Artist, Quilting Water Project), and Dr. Danielle Land (Civil and Environmental Engineer, University of Iowa) join Dr. Dick Sadler (Urban Geographer and Associate Professor at Michigan State University) to discuss the ways that systems throughout time have created inequitable access to clean water, and the impact it has on children and families.

“I don’t know if we always recognize the relationship between water and its impact on food… specifically [in] black culture and… the ways in which we use water for preparation, cooking, hydration, and boiling, simmering and stewing; all of these things that are specific to the ways in which we understand food and its development within our particular cultures. Grits, greens, rice and beans… the ways we wash and brine our meat are significant to our access to clean water. So this lack of access not only impacts our health in thinking about how we use water for bathing and drinking and the potential gastrointestinal and skin issues related to that, but on the simplest form, our access to food, which in a lot of ways has this cultural impact.” – Cherita Harrell

Key Takeaways and Quotes
  • The huge number of water management systems makes regulation challenging. Compared to other utilities (800 gas companies, 1100 electric companies) there are over 150,000 water systems and 65,000 wastewater systems in the United States. Because these systems are so decentralized, funding for the maintenance of these systems falls largely on local communities, regardless of their size or wealth, leading to huge inequities in regulation and safety.
  • Localized water management also reduces learning across geographies. The Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act give oversight and reporting responsibilities to the States, leading to a lot of variance and little sharing of learning across state lines. This results in similar mistakes in handling water crises in places like Flint, MI and Jackson, MS. Additionally, water systems in rural areas are much smaller, but universally more vulnerable to contamination from agricultural runoff. Without an inclusive system for regulation and knowledge sharing, the neighborhoods or individuals who are managing their own wells are often unable to keep their water safe and healthy.
  • Communities of Color are disproportionately affected by lack of safe water. Statistics show that Black communities are twice as likely to lack safe water services, and Indigenous communities are 19 times more likely. An economic consequence of that is the Black and Hispanic communities rely more on bottled water, a cost that other, predominantly white, communities don’t have to bear. Furthermore, Black children are 2.8 times higher odds of having elevated blood lead levels compared to their White or Hispanic counterparts nationally.
  • Policies throughout history have excluded communities of color from accessing healthy, safe water. When the US signed the Clean Water Act in 1972, tribal lands were excluded from requirements and supports to establish water regulations. It wasn’t until 1987 that the authority to set local water quality standards was extended to tribal lands, which meant they would be able to work with surrounding states with upstream water supplies to ensure water safety. The delay of inclusion and related lack of access to funding has lasting impact – as recently as April, 2023, only 47 of over 300 Tribal Nations have achieved the baseline water quality standards.
  • Regular data collection and reporting can support communities to influence change. In cities like Flint, Michigan, data has been collected regularly from the community and infrastructure. This data showed when and where there were high blood lead levels or high lead levels in the water. Analysis from Jackson, Mississippi showed that in the years after coverage of the crisis ended, there have been hundreds of water main breaks, showing that the corrective measures taken were inadequate. When communities were able to bring this data along with their own observations of funny tasting or smelling water, they were able to influence changes that led to healthier systems.
  • As a culture, there is a need to fundamentally value water more. In collecting stories from around the world, there is a universal connection to water in spiritual rituals, impacts of devastation, or places of gathering. And yet, safe water is often made inaccessible by high costs, varying levels of respect for regulation, and lack of acknowledgement in the effects of water policies on individual communities and the global environment. It is crucial to value water as a federally supported common good in order to ensure equitable, affordable, safe water access for all.

    “We’ve seen in the research that… Black and Hispanic communities have a more negative perception of their tap water, they’re more [wary] to drink it. What we’re seeing is absolutely distrust. … In terms of how we need to organize in these communities – as an engineer and a scientist, people who really rely on testing and data – I think we need to be absolutely transparent. We need to be sampling in these communities and then we need to take our findings, all of our data, and we need to give it to the public in a way that is understandable and accessible because there is a lot of mixed messaging coming from different levels of government and I think all of our efforts need to be around lifting up these communities.” – Dr. Danielle Land

Drops of Hope

“Some of us in the world of water have been saying… this looks like this is water’s moment! I’m encouraged by this conversation… that there are brilliant people here working on issues of water and who want to figure out how to get engaged. The [Infrastructure] bill plus the push on greater technical assistance that are going to be focused on environmental justice communities is a ray of hope. Even if it’s not enough money for everything, everywhere for everybody, it is a beginning and… if we can really collectively work together, build from it and highlight great examples and continue to get more funding, at least there’s hope.” – Mami Hara

Continued Learning and Action